How Travis Kalanick Is Building The Ultimate Transportation Machine

Harry here.  It may be Christmastime, but here on the blog we are still working hard to stay on top of everything that’s going on in the world of rideshare.  Today, senior RSG contributor John Ince shares an inside look on Travis Kalanick and Uber, an Uber driver who thwarted a robbery and the new Uber beacon.

Merry Christmas!


How Travis Kalanick Is Building The Ultimate Transportation Machine [Forbes]

Sum and Substance:  Around the table, six young men present the Uber cofounder and CEO with the early results of a critical initiative: a new version of the Uber app that launched three weeks earlier. What users see as simple tweaks in the app’s design have profound impacts on app downloads, usage, ratings, pickup times, retention rates, load times, the distribution of users who choose UberPool over UberX and much more. Those impacts vary by country and by the type of phone the rider uses.

It’s the ultimate logic quiz. For 80 minutes Kalanick scrutinizes every chart, questioning assumptions. “This could be a measurement issue or a real problem,” he says, pointing to a seemingly arcane metric. He repeatedly pulls out his iPhone to check for himself how such details might affect actual users, alternating between satisfaction and mild annoyance. At one point he says that without “real data” on a specific feature, “emotion will rule the day.” At Uber that would be a very bad thing.

This process, one of the fundamental building blocks of the Uber machine, is a called a jam session. Jams determine how problems get turned into ideas, how ideas get turned into products and how products get reviewed with an eye to their impact on Kalanick’s overriding obsession: the efficiency of Uber. Jams are also how Kalanick touches almost every important aspect of the Uber experience.

One of the most talked-about people in Silicon Valley, the 40-year-old (No. 64 on FORBES’ World’s Most Powerful People list) has been described as many things–most of them unflattering. Ruthless and unethical, an evil genius and a loose cannon, a “bro” and a “douche.” There’s a seed of truth in all of those. But the terms miss the special sauce, the unifier that explains how Kalanick has driven Uber to become the richest startup in history, with a valuation of $68 billion.

As the jams demonstrate, Kalanick’s ultimate professional trait–the part that channels the hyper-competitiveness, harnesses the intensity and mitigates any personal flaws–is troubleshooting. He likes to call himself Uber’s problem-solver-in-chief. When you watch him jam, it’s easy to see the joy he takes in that role, as he compares a small and particularly successful tweak to a “super-gangster move,” his face lighting up with a kid-in-a-candy-store smile that further narrows his quasi-permanent squint. Many founders, Kalanick included, have vision. Others, Kalanick not included, are fanatical, public evangelists. Kalanick views his role as driving Uber forward through a series of logical hurdles, which must be jumped, endlessly.

The primacy of efficiency has only increased with this gargantuan scale. Kalanick, whose net worth FORBES estimates at $6.3 billion–he says he hasn’t sold any of his Uber shares–manages this by breaking every component into a problem to be solved. “You create a system, which could be code or process, and guess what–we are in the world of bits and atoms, so it’s process and code, and honestly, that’s every problem,” Kalanick says, before correcting himself. “It’s people, process and code.” Phew.

My Take:  This is a fascinating and largely positive look behind the scenes of Uber corporate headquarters and how CEO Travis Kalanick is attempting to re-invent modern transportation.  It’s easy to take for granted all the work that has gone into making the Uber app as impressive as it usually is.

Here we get a peek at the “Jams” that TK and team hold to brainstorm possible tweaks of the app in attempts to make it more efficient. The author of the article is clearly enamored by TK and what he has accomplished – which by any standard is impressive.  Yet there seems to me no awareness of the other issues that loom, including the continued bleeding of red ink, the insurance issues, the driver disaffection, the lawsuits and so much else that regular readers of this blog are familiar with.

Uber Driver Thwarts Robbery Attempt by Fatally Shooting Would-Be Thief on Florida Causeway [ABC News]

Sum and Substance: A South Florida Uber driver thwarted a robbery attempt Sunday morning by fatally shooting an armed, would-be thief who approached the driver in the middle of a causeway and demanded he hand over his belongings, police said. The driver, who had a passenger in his vehicle, was travelling to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

“At approximately 5:50 a.m. today, there was a gentleman operating an Uber and picked up a fare here in Aventura at one of the local condos,” Aventura police Sgt. Chris Goranitis told reporters Sunday, according to ABC affiliate WPLG. The Uber driver’s vehicle was then cut off by a Dodge Caravan minivan on the William Lehman Causeway.

“The driver of the Caravan exited the vehicle and he had two firearms in his hands and he pointed them at the Uber driver and demanded items from the driver,” Goranitis said. “This was an attempted robbery. We don’t believe it was road rage.” But the unidentified Uber driver was also armed, and he proceeded to fire at the would-be thief, police said. The suspect, who was not identified, was pronounced dead at the scene. Police said the Uber driver fired in self-defense. When police arrived at the scene, the suspect’s two guns were located, but the minivan was missing. Police believed that another individual in the minivan drove off, WPLG reported. But by Sunday evening, police had located the van and were questioning a person of interest. Police said the Uber driver had a concealed weapons permit. But Uber — which had no comment, according to WPLG — has a firearms policy, which states, “Our goal is to ensure that everyone has a safe and reliable ride. That’s why Uber prohibits riders and drivers from carrying firearms of any kind in a vehicle while using our app.” Neither the Uber driver nor his passenger were harmed.

My Take:  Here’s yet another dilemma for both Uber and for drivers.  In this instance, the driver’s concealed firearm potentially saved his life and the life of a passenger.  Yet Uber’s loosely enforced policy against carrying firearms was violated and the driver risks de-activation.

It’s easy to understand why Uber doesn’t want drivers to be packing heat.  If this became a widespread practice, many passengers would think twice about taking an Uber.  For drivers, it’s another dammed if you do, damned if you don’t type situation.

What’s your take on this?  Did this driver do the right thing?  Should he be de-activated?  Should Uber change their policy on firearms?  And let’s ask the real question underlying situations like this: is it worth the few bucks that all of us get on each ride to potentially risk our lives – all in the service of being “everyone’s private driver”? The only sure thing in this incident is that Uber does not want this story to get attention, but it’s already big news.

Here’s a list of horrible behavior that will get you banned from Uber [The Verge]

Sum and Substance: … Up until now, Uber hasn’t been very clear about what behavior is frowned upon, and what behavior will get you banned from using the service. This vague set of corporate policies applied to both riders and drivers. Uber community guidelines posted online made reference to “professionalism and respect,” but it was not entirely clear what it would take for Uber to deactivate your account. 

These unclear lines were especially true for drivers, who would sometimes find their accounts suspended for what seemed like arbitrary reasons. Meanwhile, drivers complained of a double standard when it came to ratings, since they had to maintain a minimum rating while no such requirement existed for riders. Uber is hoping to clear up much of that confusion by updating its community guidelines to include, for the first time, a list of specific actions that can get riders banned from the service. A lot is pretty self-explanatory: don’t trash your driver’s car, don’t assault or insult your driver, and definitely don’t try to have sex with your driver. “Uber has a no sex rule,” the new guidelines state. “That’s no sexual conduct with drivers or fellow riders, no matter what.”…

Uber’s action are overdue, and perhaps don’t go far enough to curb incidents of drivers assaulting passengers. Just Google “Uber driver assault” and you’ll see a lot of disturbing headlines. Uber has resisted calls from safety advocates to subject its drivers to fingerprinting and other screening measures. Uber believes these measures would slow down its on-boarding process for drivers. Even after a Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Uber driver went on a shooting rampage, killing six people, Uber still declined to require fingerprinting or face-to-face interactions with drivers before allowing them to begin accepting fares.

But now Uber is taking steps to better outline driver behavior, too. There are updated rules for drivers as well, such as no touching of the passengers and a prohibition against contacting passengers after a trip is over. Drivers must maintain a minimum rating, which averages to around 4.6 stars, to keep their account active. And they must avoid canceling too many rides or risk deactivation.

My Take:  Drivers should be pleased that Uber seems to be getting tough with passengers by outlining exactly what will and will not be tolerated.  Many drivers feel that Uber uses a double standard when assessing behavior.  This appears to be a step in the right direction, but many more strides will be needed before drivers get the feeling that Uber is really listening to them (like tipping!)

Uber’s Beacon is a colorful light to guide you to the right ride [Engadget]

Sum and Substance: While ride-hailing companies have made it easier than ever to identify your driver and the car they’re driving, there’s often room for mix-ups, especially when it’s dark. In an attempt to bring some clarity to proceedings, Uber has today introduced Beacon, a new light that attaches to a driver’s windscreen and displays a color that you specify in the app. It’s only in the trial stage right now, but riders in Miami, Denver and Nashville in the US and Newcastle in the UK will start seeing them from this week.

As soon as a driver starts making their way to your location, the option to choose will pop up. Select a color from the wheel and the Uber icon will change accordingly. Uber says it’ll help riders “quickly identify a booked vehicle at night, helping to make pickups easier during busy times and areas.” It’s a lot like Lyft’s Amp dashboard, which debuted last month, and builds on an earlier Uber color coding test called SPOT.

Beacon isn’t the only improvement Uber is making today. Alongside the car registration plate and make and model of a driver’s car, the Uber app will display the color of the vehicle and supply photos so you can see what your car looks like before it arrives.

Uber says that while Beacon’s rollout is currently limited, it is working with drivers to ensure there are as many lights available ahead of one of its busiest nights of the year: New Year’s Eve. It intends to expand the trial to more cities in 2017 but hasn’t confirmed which ones are next on its list.

My Take:  Just in time for the dark days of winter, here’s a warming story to bring a little light into our Uber-esque world. And it’s practical too. Happy Holidays, everyone.

Readers, what do you think of this week’s round up? Are you doing a lot of holiday driving this weekend?

-John @ RSG